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Understanding the Operations of International Ports

Understanding the Operations of International Ports

In this guide, you will learn all about the connection between TEU, container ships, and port capacities.


Some of the most complicated types of transportation take place in international waters, as millions of standard container ships make their way into their designated destination ports. 

As the industry continues to grow, the numbers and capacities of the ships and ports also increase. For example, there are approximately 400 liner services; 5,222 ships, with a combined capacity of 21.5 million TEU in operation today. 

In this guide, you will learn about TEU and get a look at the 20 busiest ports in the world, with a close highlight of the top 3 largest ports in the U.S. 

Understanding TEU 

In order to understand port capacity and what makes a port capable to accommodate higher volumes of containers, one must understand the concept of TEU and how they contribute to shipment operations. 

What is a TEU? 

A TEU or twenty-foot equivalent unit is an exact unit used to measure cargo capacity for container ships, terminals, and ports.




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The Basics: 

- There are two common internationally recognized standardized container types: 20-foot long and 40-foot long. 

- A 20-foot unit is externally measured at 6 meters (20 feet). This equals 1 TEU. 

- A 40-foot unit is externally measured at 12 meters long (40 feet). This equals 2 TEU. 

- Depending on the number of 20-foot and 40-foot units present on board, the TEU capacity of the ship changes. 


To Summarize: 

A 20-foot container is referred to as 1 TEU. 

A 40-foot container is referred to as 2 TEU. 



We have 4 40-foot containers and 6 20-foot containers. How many TEU do we have at hand? 


4 x 2 TEU = 8 TEU 

6 x 1 TEU = 6 TEU 


Answer: 8+6= 14 TEU



Port Capacities 

With container ships in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most powerful, high-capacity ports around the world:

RankPort 2018 Volume: Million TEU
1Shanghai, China42.01
3Shenzhen, China27.74
4Ningbo-Zhoushan, China26.35
5Guangzhou Harbor, China21.87
6Busan, South Korea21.66
7Hong Kong, S.A.R, China19.60
8Qingdao, China18.26
9Tianjin, China16.00
10Jebel Ali, Dubai, United Arab Emirates14.95
11Rotterdam, The Netherlands14.51
12Port Klang, Malaysia12.32
13Antwerp, Belgium11.10
14Kaohsiung, Taiwan, China10.45
15Xiamen, China10.00
16Dalian, China9.77
17Los Angeles, U.S.A9.46
18Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia8.96
19Hamburg, Germany8.73
20Long Beach, U.S.A.8.09


Top 3 Ports in the World 

#1 Shanghai, China: In 2018, the port served 42.01 million TEU worth of containers. 

#2 Singapore: In 2018, the port served  36.60 million TEU worth of containers. 

#3 Shenzhen, China: In 2018, this port served 27.74 million TEU worth of containers.


Top 3 Ports in the United States 

The U.S. contributes to over 26% of the total world consumption of goods, thus its ocean freight industry is crucial for its economy. Here are the top three U.S. ports: 

#1 Port of Los Angeles: The Los Angeles port sits on 7,500 acres of land on a 43-mile long waterfront and is responsible for the majority of the Transpacific trade. This port handled 9.5 million TEU worth of containers in 2018. 

#2 Port of Long Beach: Also known as the sister port of L.A., the Long Beach Port accepted over 8.1 million TEU worth of containers in 2018. 

#3 Port of New York & New Jersey: This is the busiest port on the East Coast of the U.S., with a TEU capacity of 7.1 million in 2018.